Westside Gunn – 10: Review

Hitler Wears Hermes 10, or simply 10. A decade later, Westside Gunn continues to be as ferocious as ever, weaving intricacies of his characters with auspicious production that shifts on a dime as he explores foundational growth as an artist. Though Westside Gunn isn’t present on all the tracks, his energy, and stylistic virtuosity breathe through them. It’s a semblance of Gunn’s craft, buoying rich writing over distinguished production as he reflects on ten years of the Hitler Wears Hermes series. Adding a platoon of features, Westside Gunn doesn’t deliver the best of the series as some come and go with typical expectancy but stands as a statement about his everlasting legacy through memorable adlibs and flows. Many mixtape series have a lasting impact, like Trap or Die, The S.O.U.L. Tapes, and Dedication, amongst others; Hitler Wears Hermes 10 stands tall amongst the many with its consistency and shifting intrigue from tape to tape.

10 opens with a beautifully delivered spoken word verse that captures the depth of art; despite the content, there are layers to the verses than the surface layer of humdrum some conservative people attack hip-hop for being. As Bro A.A. Rashad speaks in the “Intro,” “​​You, the listener, with all due respect/Some of us are here for the art/Some of us are here to try to be far too discerning/When it comes to cultural iconography/And narrative unfoldment within historical alignment to greatness;” it expresses this need to see more than just the apropos rhetoric on display. For Westside Gunn, he is more than the street-slanging luxury; he imbues an essence of humbled living after years of adversity. 10 has themes surrounding gang life, systematic racism, and more, as we see a solid contrast between tracks. With its features, they come understanding and delivering on the assignment, which boasts that success we’ve seen throughout the years.

Westside Gunn comes through with the heat on “Super Kick Party” and “Mac Don’t Stop” with the fierce integrity we’ve heard when he rides solo on a beat, but 10 rides or dies by the features. Though it isn’t a surprise, especially with the last two in the series, Westside Gunn brings in features and subverts our expectancy due to the stylistic area Gunn revolves. However, this time, that isn’t the case; Gunn brings features that offer nuance bars containing histrionics and boasting themes further. Everyone comes with reflections and physical characteristics that establish an identity, whether it features Busta Rhymes with the members of Wu-Tang Clan, along with Stove God Cooks, or Run the Jewels, again with Cooks. Gunn finds ways to incorporate that subtle celebratory aspect by conducting these tracks that fit the mode thematically while having an essence of grandeur.

Unfortunately, despite being a fan, 10 brings Stove God Cooks fatigue, becoming a slight deterrent with his presence being as frequent as Gunn’s. That isn’t to say he doesn’t deliver, but sometimes the lyrical repetitiveness and redundancies can come across as reductive, like on “BDP” and “Science Class.” The latter would have been nice to see Gunn with the last verse instead. However, there are moments where Cooks is fantastic, reflecting greatness when given a proper footing to spit, like on “Switches on Everything” or the glorious posse cut “Red Death.” Beyond Cooks, other features come and deliver on a high, save for Westside Pootie, which is cute but not that effective. Fortunately, most leave a lasting memory with their verses like the aforementioned rappers, Doe Boy on “FlyGod Jr.,” A$AP Rocky on “Shootout In Soho,” and Blackstar on “Peppas.” They assent with Westside Gunn’s style, especially the latter three, who blend into gritty, boom-bap beats, which are equally memorable.

Produced predominantly by Griselda signee Conductor Williams, 10 contains additional production by The Alchemist, Pete Rock, RZA, and Swizz Beatz, to name a few. Besides The Alchemist, the beats from the others bring that New York grit and swagger we’ve come to hear throughout the years. Westside Gunn smoothly shifts from the boom bap to the gritty street-percussion-heavy beats or sometimes jazzy golden age modernism. It helps round out Gunn’s history in the industry and growing prominence mixtape after mixtape. The production allows him to bring continuous intrigue, despite the dark tonal consistencies that shroud these beats atmospherically, but that’s the style fans get accustomed to–for the new audiences, just going through tape-by-tape, you’ll see growth in production choices and quirks within his lyricism.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Joey Bada$$ – 2000: Review

Whether thematically or through an expansion of congruent or parallel tales in sequel albums, we’ve seen them match the quality of their predecessor at times, but not at the consistent peak of the original. We’re talking the Blackouts, Blueprint 2, Man on The Moon 2, Marshall Mathers LP 2, and Only Built For The Cuban Linx Pt. 2, to name a few, but we have had rare contrasting improvements, like with Tha Carter II, but ultimately, sequels are way too common. So, when a new one is released, the hype scale skews up and down depending, and there is no in-between. Joey Bada$$ joins the lot with his latest album, 2000, an update to his debut 1999 mixtape that bridges the two with lyrical content and production style, and your hype scale should heighten. Like 1999, 2000 has an excess of boom bap and jazz rap. 2000 reminds us that Joey can command a smokey jazz lounge with crisp flows and emotionally draining lyricism.

When P. Diddy utters these words rhythmically, “Can you say New York City?/Now as we proceed/To give you what you need(Bad Boy),” you get the ting that you’re in for something extraordinary. Though it isn’t the right word to define most choruses on the album, Joey Bada$$ at least reaffirms Diddy’s words, specifically calling him the baddest. Equipped with spectacular co-productions from Statik Selektah, Chuck Strangers, Kirk Knight, and Erick the Architect, amongst others, Joey comes with smokey flows and poignant lyricism, offering a breakdown of his person in front and behind the microphone. From expressing his career doubts throughout or a continuous bounce of confidence like in “Where I Belong,” Joey acquiesces with fluidity as we picture his emotions in these larger-than-life scenes within the verse. Doubling down on “One Of Us,” there is smooth progression between tracks, maneuvering our emotional reflection. 

Unfortunately, Joey still hasn’t grown much when writing choruses. That isn’t to say he’s an albatross, but it’s stagnated, and at times, mundane 1-2-3-4-5 old school choruses don’t have that same pizzaz. It makes individual songs have some that come across like speed humps on a residential road like the potent “Eulogy.” Joey Bada$$’s weakness for writing captivating choruses stays near the front, especially on some highlights: “Cruise Control” and “Brand New 911.” It doesn’t get pushed aside, but its verses and production are enough to keep you returning. The crisp and smooth boom bap–soul hybrid beat from Mike-Will-Made-It, Marz, and Cardiak on “Cruise Control”  focuses on the nuances of the genre, using pianos subtly beneath the percussion, guiding it through the confines of slight decentness. Joey has the right approach for the melody, but it isn’t that interesting. It’s another track that adds affirmation to Joey’s coolness when exuberating confidence that ends with Nas giving us a short speech about Joey’s character, grind, and talent. 

“Brand New 911” has more of a nothing burger of a chorus–fortunately, it isn’t one of those asking for a highlight, and we get lost in the whim of vocal gun noises and slick verses from Joey Bada$$ and Westside Gunn. Like Gunn, most features acquiesce with Joey’s boom bap/Jazz centrism, further giving us highlights to replay, like “One Of Us,” with the Larry June or JID on the aforementioned “Wanna Be Loved.” They properly balance with Joey’s solo tracks that there wasn’t a moment that left me feeling like they didn’t fit. However, that’s more due to the quality of work focused on, unlike Chris Brown, who comes as his haphazard self, offering nothing but an underwhelming verse in an otherwise underwhelming track. But in essence, 2000 is more of a reflection of his career, specifically in growth, as we hear him tackle varied reflection points, like that high feeling of achieving success on “Make Me Feel.” 

See, Joey Bada$$ dropped 1999 and got talked about as this old soul bringing a modern flavor to a style that wasn’t as prominent as the 90s, especially with his quintessentially driven flows. He had swagger and ways of weaving smooth, hypnotic fluidity through multi-syllabic bars, and I remember hitting me when I heard him go toe-to-toe with Capital Steez on “Survivor Tactics.” The growth of Joey Bada$$ has been gripping and pertinent amongst others in the New York scene of the 2010s like groups Pro Era, Flatbush Zombies, Underachievers, Phony Ppl, and more. His growth since Capital Steez’s suicide and his manager’s death; it’s been a rough ride for Joey. Though it wasn’t pertinent, the subtle darkness loomed at the sounds never got brighter with immediate releases from Joey. I remember how Summer Knights reflected darker overtones, and Joey reflects how everything’s been since. We heard it throughout 2000, but significantly on “Survivor’s Guilt.”

Ending with “Survivor’s Guilt,” we hear the emotional weight Joey Badass bared throughout the years, despite having proper clarification to defend particular actions. Like how he flies a bit high and mighty and still can’t offer sound reasonings for having someone like Chris Brown on a track–friendship isn’t the best defense, and it minimally dilutes its gravitas, especially with how poignant “Survivor’s Guilt” is. Though, as a whole, 2000 has a lot that merits multiple listens, specifically with the first half–that alone will offer a rewarding experience with hearing contrasting and parallel allusions between 1999 and 2000.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Fivio Foreign – B.I.B.L.E: Review

Stepping out of the shadows of Pop Smoke, Fivio Foreign has grown into his own, continuing to establish drill as a dominant genre/cultural movement in Hip-Hop. These artists have a limited range as a lyricist as the style emboldens different technical feats that an artist masters behind the microphone, like emotional focus and proper diction. Unfortunately, coded within some drill music is hate and anger, with Hot97 DJ, DJ Drewski banning the genre during his show because of the violent-gang-related content that engulfs these songs, and it’s understandable as drill has a lot to offer. Others would follow suit, but like any genre, you can subvert it the known lyrically or musically, and artists like Pop Smoke and Lil Durk did so. Fivio is another one to add to the list, especially after his debut album, B.I.B.L.E, which shows off Fivio at peak strength as a rapper while still progressing with his musical range.

We hear B.I.B.L.E stumbling at times, but Fivio’s musical ambition runs high, and working with Ye boosts the production value made by all producers involved. It tries to do something different with each track, whether it works or not, but there is an intrigue that amasses from it due to the lengths Fivio Foreign can go. He brings emotional depth and the element of surprise, especially with his approach to the themes lyrically. There is nuance in the way he approaches this, reflecting with confidence like on “Slime Them”–featuring a great verse by Lil Yachty–or reflexive like on “Feel My Struggle.” On a lyrical level, Fivio is twiddling his thumbs and delivering half-assery but his rap bars that never feel antiquated. B.I.B.L.E shows us Fivio’s growth as a lyricist and technical rapper. We hear him trying to push different flows and different sonic complexions, which sometimes work, and other times, leaves me feeling underwhelmed due to a lack of synergy.

That synergy is sometimes lost with the features as they become forgettable quickly, like Coi Leray on “What’s My Name” and Chlöe’s verse on “Hello.” It continues with Blueface on “Left Side,” who brings the energy down, and “Love Songs,” where the only ear-popping moment is Ne-Yo singing his line from “So Sick” at the end of a luscious chorus. On the other hand, “Confidence” is the opposite; A$AP Rocky comes and shines, but Fivio is almost non-existent, and the track left me wishing it was longer. However, beneath the fumbles, Fivio doesn’t back down; his flows and verses are better, and it shows, while others falter. But Fivio is there to still catch you in a web of music, specifically from the solo tracks, as he refines and reminds us of his technical talent. I can’t doubt his lyrical prowess under the guise of drill music conventions anymore. His ambition is high, and we hear it as he still tries to rap over uniquely odd samples.

“World Watching” is the most ambitious, of the bunch; it is a hybrid of two variations of “Lights” by Ellie Goulding–the original and the Bassnectar remix. When Fivio Foreign, Lil TJay, and Yung Blue start to sing or rap, the production’s proximity to that of “Lights” overwhelms them, and it leaves me scratching my head. Similarly, “B.I.B.L.E. Talk” feels forced and unnecessary. It’s here to repurpose the meaning of the album, but it gets lost with no fault from DJ Khaled’s delivery. The only interlude, there is little to it that elevates the album anymore. You remove that, along with “World Watching,” there is more cohesion amongst the tracklists. 

Without that cohesion, we get a slight imbalance. Fivio Foreign wants radio-friendly tracks and songs for the ladies, like “Love Songs,” but they mostly miss. “Left Side” seems destined to make a splash on both sides because of the chorus, but Blueface doesn’t add anything to it, and others are mundane in comparison. Other times, the production comes across as overly ambitious, like “World Watching.” However, he has one that works, “Magic City” with Quavo, which perfectly mixes what we should expect from a rap single on the radio. We want to hear them flex, and it does so effortlessly. It doesn’t need the captivating chorus melodies from “Left Side” or “Love Songs” to keep going through some mediocre moments. 

Ultimately, there is a lot to like about Fivio’s debut, and I’ll be spinning for years to come. But like any debut, you will have growing pains, and for Fivio, it’s song construction. A few times, there were moments where I felt songs could have been longer, taken off, or reworked for a better return. It could have elevated B.I.B.L.E to a higher plateau, but it stands firm strong as a solid debut that will leave fans hungry for an even better follow-up.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Benny the Butcher – Tana Talk 4: Review

There isn’t a moment where a member of Griselda strives, each manifesting a hearty platter for hungry fans to indulge. Album to album, mixtape to mixtape, there have rarely been moments that see them dwindle toward the sometimes tried consistency of Curren$y, instead offering up something fresh on the lyrical side and the production side, as they embody a different approach to the music. Benny the Butcher is constantly mounting layers in his lyricism, even when he’s speaking about the trials and tribulations of the drug game, during and after one’s shift to a different career path – case in point, rap. On his third studio album, Tana Talk 4, Benny offers up that finely chopped lyricism and perfectly cooked sauce from Beat Butcha, The Alchemist, and Daringer. 

Benny the Butcher is keen. He knows what he wants and delivers translucent flows, immersing himself in the production. It makes his verses flourish through the different tempos, whether it goes on an uptick or downtick based on the content. He delivers with impact, along with sous chef J. Cole on “Johnny P’s Caddy,” trading verses detailing their rags to riches as an artist through the eyes of respect. It fits the mold of the Tana Talk series as it has been personal to Benny the Butcher, and it weaves a path that covers subjects like violence, drug use, and humbling yourself amongst your riches due to past reflections. On “Super Plug,” Benny starts laying it down and describing the differences between vague verbiage and detailed imagery when describing the horrors of dealing. It’s given a perspective that gets used to lure in those to the drug game: riches for the family and homies quicker than your 9-to-5. Benny isn’t just talking drugs to talk about drugs; he is rapping in-depth to his perspective – which can be akin to others. 

These sentiments get reestablished throughout Tana Talk 4, notably on “Bust A Brick Nick.” Benny the Butcher reminds rappers why they can’t talk shit on his level – it refers to the shit that Benny went through –for example: getting shot during an attempted robbery, he just happened to be there – it’s similar to 50 Cent as he kept mentioning his nine bullets wounds on Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Benny doesn’t sugarcoat why he puts himself on this upper echelon. On “Bust A Brick Nick” he raps: But it’s over, and that was my fourth felony, certainly/Got a warning, I’d be in Lewisburg right now if they search me/Locked in with plugs, so I know that shit y’all coppin’ no good/To get the drop (What’s that?), I’m the type to send fiends to shop in your hood,” boasting his status, while on the other end having perspective as evident with the line: “Blue steel knife for the jugg so don’t be that life that I took (N***a).” It’s a constant reminder that he keeps mentioning.

He is always looking to bring something creative into the fold, like on “10 More Commandments,” featuring Diddy. Many of us fans have gotten used to hearing his explicit and detailed talk about the drug game, reminding us as much with a follow-up to The Notorious B.I.G. song and showing us how things have changed over a decade. Opening with the lines: “Soon as they let me eat, knew the streets was my expertise (Uh-huh)/I kept discreet contacts with my connect, so they let me eat (Uh-huh)/A rapper, but I was a drug trafficker ‘fore I left the streets/These ten more crack commandments, Frank White, rest in peace.” Diddy comes in to talk about generational culture and how values transfer, despite the system faltering progressions in the community. 

But Benny the Butcher speaks more than just his time in the drug game – listen to The Plugs I Met 1 & 2 – it gets to other personal levels, ones where Benny senses self-doubt. The depth and quality of his lyricism hold no bounds, delivering a beautiful parallel with the production that shifts in tempo from the dreamy “Tyson vs. Ali” to the jazzy heavy “Thowny’s revenge,” there wasn’t a moment that I drew back due to quality. There is this effervescent charm and energy that derives from Benny’s demeanor and approach, you can’t help but feel entrenched by his words.

Unfortunately, the lows on Tana Talk 4 come from poorly timed lines, like on “Billy Joe” and slight redundancy on “Uncle Bun” and “Back 2x” with 38 Spesh and Stove God Cooks respectively. The latter two pass by quickly, one becoming forgettable as I listened on and the other just an oversaturation in concept without nuance. The former – though not “bad” – it feels poorly timed with the lines: “They give a dope boy life, say we destroyin’ communities/I let ’em make me out the villain, I stay poised as Putin be,” considering where we are. Hindsight being 20/20, there are other allusions one can make – though I don’t know how the process works, I don’t know if the track could have been removed prior.

Benny the Butcher continues to show up and deliver, even when the subject stays more consistent than manufactured beer. Tana Talk 4 lives up to the wait and delivers hard-hitting bars that shine brighter than its production, while still allowing it to thrive, especially during repetitive beats in content. As far as Hip-Hop projects, there has been a consistent uptick in Q1 of 2022 that brings glee to my ears – Benny is just one of many.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Joell Ortiz – Autograph: Review

Joell Ortiz has always been one of the unsung heroes of the east coast, infusing his Latin roots into the gritty street raps that made us distinct from other areas. From his debut, The Brick: Bodega Chronicles, to 2019’s Monday, Joell has gone through his trials and tribulations to mature into the rapper he is today. He has always carried a distinct swagger in his flows, never deterring from his slick multi-syllabic progressions that come in smooth succession. It continues on his new album, Autograph. It is a reflection on his career and life over the last 15+ years, taking us through these various layers that reflect the nature of his music and human being, continuously leaving us in disbelief that Joell is consistently loaded and ready to unleash at any moment.

Autograph is in many ways like 2019’s Monday, where Joell Ortiz is still more reflective – the unique difference comes from the type of production he raps over. Monday was nuanced in boom-bap New York rap, keening on percussion and slight jazz overlays, while Autograph is less monochromatic and provides us more palettes to get a taste of, even when some songs fail to hit the landing. For Joell, it’s usually the case when he falls deep into his bag and lets his emotions regurgitate standard lyricism, despite intentions being true and holistic. It isn’t to say that there isn’t any depth to these songs, but the semi-straight forward storytelling isn’t as profound in something like “Lifeline” in contrast to “Sincerely Yours.” 

The various platters Joell Ortiz has stirred up for us to indulge range from elevated boom-bap base constructions to gritty-mood-inducing street production – the focus underlying within the string sections that gorgeously overlay subdued and slower percussion patterns. The elegance comes through with a perfect crescendo of acoustic guitar and high-pitch hi-hats on “Therapeutic,” which sees Joell rap about the duality and complexities of music and how it can help ease the mind. Joell tells us a story where he describes a shit-day Sunday; we see his high get hit with constant jabs below the torso, as it pushes him down and wears him down. From that, he relays his feelings over instrumentals in his files as he writes over with beautiful synergy in the rhyme schemes. 

It’s a testament to Joell Ortiz’s producers on the project – The Heatmakerz and Apollo Brown return to deliver their naturalistic mind-melding production, as some of Joell’s usuals. The Heatmakerz, along with Salaam Remi, bring that New York City/Borough sound – there are moments you lose sight of the release date with nuances steering toward a darker side of hip-hop from the early to mid-2000s. Apollo Brown brings that equilibrium with his scratch-heavy style that you’re left in awe with the percussion, despite Joell’s delivery trip-ups. 

Beyond the production, Joell’s style warps our minds with his progressive storytelling technique and shifty historical analogies. He opens Autograph with sports analogies – the 90s and 80s – to his person, like relating his fight throughout his career to Charles Oakley’s in the garden during his tenure with those rough-dogs New York Knicks that were heavily physical, making that a staple of their defensive play. That same tough mentality rides with him through his career, considering his placement as an underrated rapper, unlike his peers like Joe Budden and Royce Da 5’9’’. 

However, nothing matches the tightness of brotherhood, and that’s what is represented on Autograph, as Joell Ortiz brings now-defunct Slaughterhouse member KXNG Crooked and The Lox’s Sheek Louch. Sheek Louch makes it known on the song “Love is Love,” where he trades bars with Joell, composing the sentiment opposite the title, ultimately reflecting a tight-knit kinship where they retort that they have each other’s back. It speaks on the brotherly love by personifying their strength as a testament toward that notion of having the backs of homies, even when it can get violent. Like Louch, KXNG Crooked, and others, the delivery on almost every song is as expected, consistent and captivating – there is never a moment where you’re distracted from what they present you. 

And that is because Joell Ortiz is going in one direction, considering Autograph is, in the most basic way, a concept album that flows through Joell’s existence – he takes us from his early roots, reminding us of his Hot97 Freestyle when he was a teen to his first sense of hope as 50 Cent grew to be from the ground up. His life gets intercepted by the clique, eventually seeing himself up there making music under Dr. Dre and Eminem’s labels, respectively. Most of the stories have a lot of depth, with smooth and elegant flows and rhyme schemes that Autograph becomes a straight shot that can stay on repeat without getting tired. 

Joell Ortiz strides in sync with his emotions on Autograph as he restores himself amongst a pantheon of greats. He doesn’t teeter blurred lines and keeps it straight with his bars, blending unique analogies with his trademark swagger. It is one of my personal favorite rap projects of Joell’s.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Nas – King’s Disease II: Review

This year Nas won his first Grammy for Best Rap Album, and it was a genuine surprise as it wasn’t the strongest nominee against the others. However, we take it in stride as it has been a time long-coming. King’s Disease was deserving, and it helps fuel Nas on the follow-up King’s Disease II. And if we’re going to be direct, this is some of his best work since 2012’s Life Is Good. King’s Disease II improves on the problems of its predecessor, primarily the consistency between his solo work and trying to mirror the new generation. Unfortunately, minimal redundancies and a poor verse from A Boogie Wit A Hoodie don’t deter King’s Disease II from being a great album.

Nas always has an arsenal ready to unleash within a beretta he calls the microphone. When Nas raps on King’s Disease II, he paints pictures like Van Gogh: articulate, direct, and vibrant. Nas has never been a singles artist, and his shift into commercialism over the last few years has never translated. Hit-Boy’s production brings the nuance that Nas needs to deliver his best work. His previous work with DJ Khaled felt half-assed and poorly constructed around Nas’ marketing ploys, from Hennessey to cigars. 

The haunting, exhilarating, and refreshing nature of King’s Disease II proves that Nas and Hit-Boy have developed a strong bond like Freddie Gibbs and Madlib or DJ Premier and Guru. The fluidity stands out as it has been a while since Nas has had a producer who understood his directions and dictations. From the smooth bubbles of “YKTV” to the distinguishing jazz-rap on songs like “Composure” and “Rare,” we hear Nas finding comfortability in the varying BPMs. Hit-Boy doesn’t produce the whole album by himself, bringing along Jansport J to add a few notches on two songs.

Hit-Boy’s production fixes issues that befall the album, like the outcome you’d expect from new rappers. On the decadent “YKTV,” New York singer-rapper A Boogie Wit A Hoodie delivers a show-stopping performance that leaves you in disarray. A Boogie is off-key and doesn’t add anything worthy to commend. Unfortunately, YG can’t save the day as it closes, but it isn’t hard to outperform A Boogie. It is like “Brunch On Sunday,” where Californian singer-rapper Blxst feels redundant on the chorus. It took a minute to realize it wasn’t Don Tolliver delivering a stripped-down vocal performance. It would have been more effective, as his background vocals on “Death Row East,” which helps build its haunting atmosphere.

After starting strong, Nas tries to make a drill song with “40 Side,” but he doesn’t feel comfortable since he can’t evoke that same energy an artist like Bizzy Banks can. However, Nas reels us back with a remix to the song “EPMD” from Judas and The Black Messiah. To Nas’ credit, he consistently reels you back in after delivering poorly. “EPMD” features EPMD, who haven’t traded bars since PMD’s 2017 album, Busine$$ Mentality. Unfortunately, you shouldn’t expect the most profound work as both artists are past their prime, and thus, we receive what works for the song. Eminem isn’t the best lyricist today, but he makes sure he delivers by pushing his strengths in one direction. In this case, he plays rhythmic gymnastics and reminds us he is more than rhymes. 

“EPMD” is a genuine surprise, like “Nobody,” which features Lauryn Hill. We heard her not long ago on a song with Pusha T, but she delivered a beautiful chorus instead of a verse. On “Nobody,” you’re left with your jaw-dropped as Lauryn Hill sounds like she hasn’t skipped a beat after all these years. It stands out, like most of the songs on this album. King’s Disease II channels varying themes that humble Nas’ views on the world and life. He creates contrasts like the violent and reflective “Store Run” and “My Bible” to the elegance success can bring with “Brunch On Sundays.”

But nothing stands out like “Death Row East.” The song recounts a time when the East/West coast beef hit a tipping point. Suge Knight and Tupac were close to monetizing the Death Row label on the East Coast, which caused tensions to turn into violence. Nas’ delicate attention to detail is the strength of King’s Disease II. On “Death Row East” recounts more than the territorial issues amongst both sides of the country and his attempt to squash any issues. It’s been 25 years since Tupac’s passing, and the way his death affected the hip-hop world was mind-shattering. Nas makes note, with delicate detail, about how he tried to dilute the violence and calm the situation between both sides, as the integration of gangs and hip-hop made it a dangerous world. 

King’s Disease II is an improvement from its predecessor, despite being as equally memorable. The production consistently reels you in, and Nas reminds he has not taken a step back. Like Nas mentions on one of the few highlights: “I’m In Rare Form.” That notion is resonant throughout as Nas’ continuous prudent deliveries balance its weak points.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Pop Smoke – Faith: Review

When news broke of Pop Smoke’s passing a little over a year ago, one of many thoughts ran through my mind; that thought was based on the details about how and why? As one who has been located on a social channel through another user having the ability or software to locate another based on IP address, seeing that he was slowly watched over through his social channels makes the world scarier and adding technology to the list of enemies, falling right under our anguish and doubts with faith. Upon hearing Pop Smoke’s debut album, posthumously released, one could easily hear the young rapper’s talent and exponential growth from his mixtapes. He’s had his fair share of criticism, and though it may not be warranted – it has never benefited Pop to have a plethora of features scribbled throughout. In his follow-up to Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, Faith, continues to remind us of that talent albeit the features and production choices making or breaking the overall need to want to return.

When the features for the track list were unveiled the day before the release date, the amassed hype grew exponentially amongst fans from various communities. On the surface level, they appeal to a broader audience. But with his untimely passing still generating attention, I can’t help but think this was some charitable ploy to get artists he probably wouldn’t work with immediately based on his style and eclectic energy; The Neptunes, and Dua Lipa in particular. Like the eclectic list of features, the album delivers enough obtuse energy you might ponder the intentions behind this project. 

The construction of Faith feels like a poor representation of Pop Smoke’s artistry, where at times it feels like they forcing marketability in pop music. Pop Smoke has shown in the past that he is limited when it comes to creating pop records, despite releasing some quality ones. Faith is like if his manager, Steven Victor, studied the first Michael Jackson posthumous album and didn’t learn from the mistakes on it. It’s a butchery of the work that has been recorded from Pop Smoke. You can sense it in some tracks, like “Demeanor” where Dua Lipa’s vocal and performance sounds exactly as it was, a forced add-on. 

Fortunately, they allow Pop Smoke to shine as an individual, despite a good chunk of tracks feeling like it would have been best to have left them in the vault. The oddity behind it makes it feel like a beautiful exploration into new territories Pop Smoke had the capabilities to branch into, despite falling short from most of these featured collaborators; especially in the features and partially the production. 

Pop Smoke’s keen dominance in New York Drill and Gangster Rap has been a focus for him and us as listeners who saw an ascension in this beautiful hybrid that mirrored two different cultures. And for the most part, the production has great fluidity, but some are pure head-scratchers. “Top Shotta,” for example, is the track produced by legendary production trio/duo The Neptunes, and while the production is fine, the reggae-bounce nature doesn’t mesh well with Pop Smoke’s flows and lyrical style. This goes for the various directions this album takes with his recorded products, like the off-brand and aforementioned “Demeanor” and “Manslaughter,” which takes too many creative choices with the mixing. The Dream doesn’t usually deliver mediocre or yawn-inducing performances, but it begs to differ on “Manslaughter.”

It starts to become a nuisance because you’re delivered, on a silver platter, a project with a minimal margin for error, and it barely leaves that margin. You’re more likely to see the Yankees blow a 5 run lead in the last two innings than think these established veteran rappers would deliver something of substance, but here we are. They orchestrate features like Pusha T, Rick Ross, Kid Cudi, and Chris Brown, and the final products are a bunch of tracks that you’re more likely to skip if you have high expectations for them. Ironically, the new class of rappers outperforms the veterans, bringing their all in tracks where the production elevates their strengths, like on “Genius” with Lil Tjay and Swae Lee or up-and-coming New York rapper Bizzy Banks on “30.”

The moments the album steers itself toward Pop Smoke solo tracks or these tracks with the new class, we are delivered the best tracks on Faith. Other tracks lack an essence of life, mostly because there has to be some empathy to hop on a record and do so with a sense of understanding. “Demeanor” featuring Dua Lipa and “Tell The Vision,” are prime examples of this outside of “Top Shotta.” Dua Lipa and Pop Smoke are some of the most nonsensical pairings between two artists that should have never happened. Dua Lipa’s overly glitzy pop falsetto on “Demeanor” doesn’t compliment Pop Smoke’s overtly twisted and rough ways on the microphone and it’s apparent. The same goes for “Tell The Vision,” which teased potential new, and of quality, verses from Kanye West and Pusha T, only to be left with blue balls from a weak intro and a redundant verse, respectively.

It’s always been evident that Pop has always had the talent, and with what has been said to be in the vault you’d expect better from the producers and orchestrators. But ultimately they took the opportunity to cash in on his legacy to find a happy medium between tracks for the fans and those to reel in the money. And though there is minimal-moral problems with it, you’d think they’d try harder to deliver something of worth, opposed to continuous snooze fests that will easily have you turning this off quicker than the stove when the pasta is burning.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Issa Gold – Tempus: Review

Throughout the years, one half of the duo The Underachievers, Issa Gold has always presented himself as the most sincere and conscious rapper of the two. It adds equilibrium when performing with his counterpart, AKTHESAVIOR, whose reality-driven apprehensiveness is reminiscent of the early days of reality rap (Gangsta Rap). This constant from Issa has made him stand out amongst his New York peers, who deliver with heightened personalities from the production. It breathes with the way he delivers his verses with a heightened focus on the themes, ranging from depression, suicide, drug abuse, and more. On his new album, Tempus, Issa takes us on a journey of self-exploration as he breaks down his stories to deliver proper relativity. 

Issa Gold calls Tempus a self-conscious rap album, which by my understanding is less social commentary and more personal. Unlike conscious, backpack rappers of the 00s like GLC and Kanye West, it isn’t using social commentary to buoy his themes, and instead, he uses it as pen and paper to evoke what he feels as if it were a personal show without the preachy therapy part. This music speaks to a deeper audience who deal with constant self-doubt, trying to find understanding within the good-bad parts of life. He reflects one aspect of it, by detailing these varying actions that have affected many relationships down the line, like on the track “Regret,” which has Issa mounting these things he regrets like lying to his parents and skipping class to take prescription drugs and get faded off liquor.

This introspective journey goes deep into a lot of rooted issues of the common man, broken into squadrons filled with remnants of stories that don’t morph together in a tangent timeline. Instead, they are seeds that grow quickly as you pick each one like it was a sample CD player and headphones at your local record store. Issa Gold brings attention to this with the fluctuating production that flips between slower-tempo ballad-like hip-hop and more energetic doubt with the dark instrumental overtones. He benefits from the producers who graced him with beats to boast his themes. Many of them stemming from the localized-hip hop tree as they have a history of working with artists more in tune with their geographical representation in style, opposed to universal appearance. It’s this morphed chemistry that allows him to find ease when inflecting his words with emotional grit in rhythm and flow.

Fortunately, Issa Gold doesn’t deviate from his sense of focus consistently, except for the times he flexes his provocative technical skills. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything ad the range of his verbiage, as is evident with the few tracks that open the project, like the aforementioned “Regret” and “Withdrawn,” which expresses his weaknesses with being as open as he thinks he should be. It morphs around relating to people who carry with them a reserved demeanor in life. It’s an inflection that surrounds him with doubt, despite any form of reassurance. It creates staggering ideologies; specifically with how he implements his views on Christianity in his verses, attributing spurts of assurance that human’s basic timeline is more than bleak. 

Issa Gold processes these ideas further on the track “Fictions,” dividing thoughts about the subjective perspectives that define good and evil, as parts of evil remain dormant within like he mentions in the opening lines of the first verse: “I heard God love his children, even Satan got his heart / So why everybody ’round me walk around inside the dark? / I heard life is like a beach ’til you learn that there was sharks.” He raps about this constant turmoil with himself that swims around his being with a snapping nature of a silent ocean killer, like a shark.

If there is anything to strike Tempus with is the swiftness of the ending, as the last track and a half swiftly move in pace and you’re right away taken to the start – “Envy,” beginning a new cycle. However this can be a minimally consistent issue, the tracks don’t lose sight of the delivery. You could be going through two to three tracks at 2 minutes 30 seconds each, and despite a moderate pace, there is rarely a moment you forget what Issa Gold is rapping about. It’s ever so rare to see an album with enough purpose and direction, that one iota is to contain enough relativity that an artist reaches beyond the measures of the technical walls that split them from the fans – i.e. sending direct messages on social platforms.

Tempus exceeds beyond the parameters of the walls it imposes on itself for a marketable reach, but Issa Gold has never been one to glamorize success as his mental health still hits him in strife. These recurring themes have been a looming shadow on the rapper as he comes to grips with the way life changed. He may not have the appeal of New York rappers who encompass, the currently trendy, New York Drill sound and expand it to fit the unique niche of their verbal artistry.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

DMX – Exodus: Review

DMX’s career was one to always admire as he fought against the odds imposed by his mental psyche, by unifying themes of blood and brotherhood, amongst others, like religion. He never shied away from this and allowed his music to embody everything about it, as it is with his first posthumous release, Exodus. On this final – recorded for – outing, DMX brings back that grit and grime of New York, without feeling outdated and nuanced with Swizz Beatz co-lead production work taking the driver’s seat and letting DMX cruise along delivering some of his best work since 1999’s …And There Was X.

When Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood released, it heavily contributed to the contextual direction DMX went about delivering his message, in his loud and sometimes aggressive demeanor. His bars expressed different sub-textual themes deriving from togetherness and societal views, like brotherhood – blood and the world around him – via drug abuse and gang violence. His dogs (dawg) are his dogs (dawg). Exodus doesn’t forget that and DMX embraces his current life and its direction as he tries to make his way back onto the scene. And fortunately the highs on this album overvalue the middling low points.

However, Exodus has a strong opening and a strong closer, with a plethora of solid percussion and great/classic features, like another rare presence of Jay-Z and Nas on one track and a phenomenal posse cut with The Lox. On “Bath Salts” DMX comes at it with a different idea and focuses on the context of the song in that way, opposed to Jay-Z who is just casually flexing his riches without feeling refreshing. It retreads a lot of what he raps about recently, without the creativity. It could be because it has been around in rough form for 2012’s Life Is Good by Nas. Amongst them, the varying features of classic artists and newcomers bring unique ranges in its sonic structure.

From the construct of the Lil Wayne featured “Dog’s Out,” where the chorus feels middle of the pack and less infectious than Lil Wayne’s flows, and the unique inclusion of Bono on “Skyscrapers,” it leaves room for some admiration when listening to the rhyme scheme in the verses, but not everything hits the landing. Wayne and DMX are solid, but the production feels a little basic and one dimensional, further losing sight of the bigger scope. There are moments where the production comes across bombastic and one-note like the honest, but bland “Money Money Money” with Memphis rapper Moneybag Yo. Along with DMX there are some solid rap bars here and there, and ultimately deters into mediocrity. You appreciate the direct approach, despite it getting minimally overbearing in the spiritual content at this point, and other times he delivers it beautifully.

“That’s My Dog” is the title of the posse cut that opens Exodus with a vibrant and gritty New York flair to light the flames for DMX’s last waltz. Many of the tracks evoke a production akin to the rooted NY aggression and rawness that made DMX such a profound name in the music world in the late 90s. His first came as an unlikely superstar after the tragic deaths of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., with that raw dog energy bringing a new energy to the summer in both coasts. The transcendent transition from that to philosophizing on others made him this unique first in hip-hop. This happens as the album starts to close with “Letter To My Son” and “Prayer,” which evoke teary moments from the listener, as DMX delivers a letter to his five year old son Exodus, who will only know his father from brief memories and from music, and a final prayer. This final prayer comes from DMX reciting the lessons learned from his wrong and the future we hold as we mold society to see the truth.

DMX has always demonstrated this demeanor to be more of an amalgamation of his emotions being circumvented into disdain and levying that anger with the bass-heavy production akin to Swizz Beatz style. Swizz Beatz comes in to flex that creativity with some slight nuance with the over abundant bass overlaying the hypnotic percussion and further defining what filled the void in New York Hip-Hop at their early peak, but with a modern twist. There are moments where it’s hard to define the direction of the production, outside of a few notable Swizz Beatz commonalities, like the melodic switches in the instrumental for the hook and more. This can be hit or miss at times, but it’s usually this breath of modern fresh air for X and the constant fluidity of the beats from start to finish really identifies the music DMX always had prepped for this major release, the first since 2012’s Undisputed.

Exodus is a beautiful swan song, as we hear DMX’s lasting partial words, and not his last, as he transcends into being one of Hip-Hop new angels, watching over us and the game. Swizz Beatz gives us a remnant of the past, while keeping it fresh for the times as X delivers some of his best work in some time. We’ll miss you X.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Khaled Khaled Is A Simple Chore You Wouldn’t Want To Circle Back To: Review

Record executive, producer, meme, and posse cut legend; DJ Khaled is back with another album that perfectly emboldens the idea that nepotism may sometimes lead down a path with us questioning why. His newest album, Khaled Khaled, is a continuation in a down spiral full of laziness and overly poor engineering. DJ Khaled has always been one to deliver many solid track on the albums he’s dropped, but the closer we got to his next step in life the easier it was to pinpoint the laziness in almost every aspect of the album; however that isn’t to discredit some of the solid cuts within each album prior. However, this new album, from DJ Khaled, has barely anything of note to highlight; from the poor engineering to the influx of questionable choices, lazy deliveries, and more, there is a lot that makes it one of the worst projects of the year and his worst to project to date.

Khaled Khaled has production that carries a lot of keen details that makes them unique, but with some features taking the easy way out, it makes some of the tracks almost unplayable upon replay. “Big Paper” with Cardi B, has some key moments where it keeps a solid rhythm and momentum, but the chorus is lazily written and mirrors some of the weak and stagnant – like delivery of the choruses of older NY Hip-Hop, it doesn’t have the nuance. It’s this ever-growing problem with Khaled, as well. He knows how to orchestrate; and how to deliver, but going through the album feels more like a haphazard chore you don’t really want to do, especially as a fan. Like Cardi B, the amount of current A-List/B-List artists is there in abundance, and yet, there is no clear direction, while lacking the feel of an overall event.

It’s sad because we know how easy it is for DJ Khaled to grab the hottest rappers and singers and make anthems on top of anthems from various sonic angles, like the powerhouse and melodic “No New Friend,” but that isn’t the case here. When Khaled Khaled was announced earlier this week, the mind wandered ever so slightly in different directions, especially because the first track almost unequivocally represents the kind of quality we’d be receiving. And it’s unfortunate because prior to there was this constant thought lingering about the quality of the music when the tracklist was fully revealed. A lot of the features made it look like it could be a bunch of bonafide hits and sadly, only a few hit that stride. These tracks, like “Every Chance I Get,” and “Popstar,” hit that landing and edge out the very poor mixing, making that a clear afterthought.

With themes of grandeur and love, amongst other basicness, there are some questionable moments that leave you rolling your eyes. For example, the track “Body In Motion” has Lil Baby and Roddy Rich rapping about their respective partners. There are lines about power dynamics in the relationship in both, but as Roddy Rich points out in his verse, he bought his girl plastic implants, as well creating an analogy about getting a deep-throat blow job is like an ostrich in a lobster… which, um, okay. However, Lil Baby is less dirty and weird as he reflects on the importance of appearance, but even then, he tonally brings a shallow appeal. So when it all mixes and closes on an inspirational speech by Khaled, that negates half the things they said… then it really just feels hypocritically cretinous. To add fuel to that fire, we are given the typical questionable Rick Ross line, “straight drop dead, Len Bias,” which just plays on a tragedy oh so poorly.

However, there are some other highlights, but what starts great then slowly turns into slight mediocrity from the featured artist that further shows the poor mixing job. There is “Sorry Not Sorry,” with Nas, Jay-Z, and underrated singer James Faultenroy. The track has a stellar instrumental, a fluid and quality verse by Nas, great vocal performance from Faultenroy, and then Jay-Z hits you with a verse about the discrepancies and hate he gets for being rich, or easily put – most Jay-Z verses since 2010.  

Another highlight comes from the two appearances of the MVP, H.E.R, who delivers these two eccentric and unique vocal performances, less akin to what we’ve gotten on the whole from her music. In a switch from R&B complexities, she goes on to hype up the crowd with both “We Going Crazy” and “I Can Have It All.” Unfortunately the latter has a weak and poor verse from Meek Mill and the former gives us 30 seconds of 2015 Migos and it works amazingly here to boost the overall hype, the problem is, for lack of a better term, under usage of Migos.

Khaled Khaled is a continuous descension into more mediocrity for the producer who once turned out hit after hit after hit. There is very little merit to take out of this and honestly feels too much of a chore to get to, especially if you care for the technical aspects of the music. DJ Khaled brings a lot of vibrant instrumentals, but the rough patches are just so hard to get through. 

Rating: 2.5 out of 10.